Friday, June 4, 2010

#18 Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1993)

"A star studded, but ultimately disappointing film"

Our final Dracula movie this week is the Francis Ford Coppola film “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”. This is one of the more recent Dracula films, and the one I am most familiar with. While my reviews of Dracula and Nosferatu were my first screenings of those films, I have seen this particular film several times, the first of which being 5 years ago after I read the original novel. At first viewing, I rather liked the film, I was 14, and this movie was gory, erotic, and generally cool. Now, after having seen this film again, with perspective, and with a different sense of good and bad, I have different sentiments about this film.

The story in this film is the closest to the story of all of the movies here. The story begins with a prologue of sorts. It talks about where Dracula came from, how he was a Hungarian prince, who defends against the incursions of the Ottoman Turks. During the battle, his wife, his one love in the world, receives false information suggesting Dracula died in battle, and so, wracked with grief, she throws herself off a cliff. When Dracula finds out what happened, he forsakes god, and in the process, turns himself into a vampire. Cut to 1890s England. Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) is told by his boss to travel to Transylvania to close a deal with one Count Dracula, who has been buying up property around London. The rest you’ve heard three times now, and this film is essentially the same thing, just with more sexual moaning, more nudity, and more blood. The only other difference is Dracula is made more human, and there’s a love story between Mina and Dracula that plays a much bigger part. One thing I do like about the film is that, like the books, the film is told largely through diary entries, which I thought was a very cool effect.

I found the acting in this film to be rather spotty. On the one hand, Gary Oldman as Dracula is absolutely stupendous, one of the best Dracula performances ever. Keanu Reeves, on the other hand, is not so good. As always, Keanu Reeves is completely bland and uninteresting. Winona Ryder I found to be off and on. Sometimes she’s good, and other times she’s very campy. And Anthony Hopkins as Van Helsing I found to be silly. I cringed every time I heard him say “Ja”. The shooting is absolutely stupendous. There are a lot of cool shots, and a lot of cool effects in this film: scenes such as Dracula climbing down the castle, and effects such as Dracula being green mist, or the shots with the old fashioned camera.

On the whole, I did not like this film. This is actually the first of the films on the list that I didn’t really like. That’s not to say the film is bad, I just didn’t find it good, especially compared to the other two Dracula movies. One thing that truly annoyed me about this film is the gratuitous nudity in the film. And don’t even get me started on the sexual moaning. This film definitely could pass as a porno, and when I’ve been watching a lot of movies that do these stories great without blood, violence, or nudity, it just feels excessive. Why is this film on the list then? I think it’s because of all of the big names in this film. Reeves, Ryder, Hopkins, and Oldman, added to by the biggest of all of them, Francis Ford Coppola, that legendary director. This, if anything, is the reason why, I feel at any rate, that this film is on the list.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

#17 Dracula (1931)

Although the connotations of the concept and name “vampire” have changed massively in the last decade, especially with the advent of the popular book (and film) series “Twilight”, when I was a kid it was rather different. Vampires were something to be feared, to me anyways, they were scary, horrifying even. And the image that came to mind when one thought of Vampires was that of Bela Lugosi’s Count Dracula; pale, regal, with a costume from the late 19th century, and piercing, striking eyes. This is the image of Dracula that has pervaded for what is now nearing on a century. It is a testament to the greatness of this film, and the great acting ability of Bela Lugosi.

This film, like Nosferatu, is quite true to the original novel. Unlike Nosferatu, however, this film features the actual character names. The story opens to a sequence that is rather similar to Hutter traveling to visit Orlok in Nosferatu. This time, Renfield is traveling to arrange a deal with Count Dracula. The whole sequence is rather spooky, and culminates in Dracula himself. Dracula talks to Renfield about buying the abandoned Carfax Abbey in London. After this is concluded, Dracula hypnotizes Renfield, and feasts on his blood.

The scene then cuts to an opera, where we are introduced to the main characters, Mina, Harker, and Lucy, accompanied by Dr. Seward. Dracula comes to the box, and the characters all become acquainted with one another. Later that night, Dracula visits Lucy and feasts on her blood, resulting the next day, in Lucy’s death after a series of failed transfusions. Meanwhile, Renfield has also returned to England, but has been institutionalized as his experience with Dracula has obviously driven him insane, and he rants endlessly about blood and life, primarily the lives of flies, spiders, and other arthropods. After befuddling the doctors, an expert is consulted, on Dr. Van Helsing, who, after interviewing Renfield, confesses a suspicion that a Vampire is to blame. A few nights later, Mina starts succumbing to the same illnesses Lucy showed. Van Helsing again lends his expertise, and through a series of stratagems, he proves to all that Count Dracula is a vampire. Despite all of his ensuing guiles after this dramatic reveal, Van Helsing and Harker eventually track Dracula to his lair in Carfax Abbey, and kill him while he sleeps, by driving a wooden steak through his heart.

The acting in this film is stupendous. Bela Lugosi is Dracula. He plays the role so well, and so true to the novel. He isn’t a monster, or grotesque, as described in Nosferatu, but a regal, suave, and smooth Count, who is quite capable of fooling and seducing just about everyone he meets. Bela’s accent, his delivery, and his gaze make this a truly stunning role. He isn’t the only great act in this film however. Renfield, played by Dwight Frye, also gives a spectacular performance. His portrayals first as a bumbling salesman put out of his element, and later as a deranged psychopath are equally compelling, and really add a lot to the film. Finally, Edward Van Sloan, who plays Van Helsing, also gives an excellent performance as the primary protagonist to Dracula’s antagonist. You feel yourself shouting “no!” when you see Bela Lugosi nearly lead him astray, only for him to flip the crucifix, and for you the viewer to release a sigh of relief.

The camerawork is also quite well done. The director Tod Browning has a lot of close ups, particularly on Bela’s Eyes, and on the little, insignificant insects that captured Renfield’s passion, and these are well done. Another great shot is the one of Renfield looking out of his cell door, and onto the field, where he sees Dracula standing, waiting. Another, equally great shot is the one at the end of the film, in which Dracula pushes Renfield down the stairs. These scenes are compelling, and you feel sorry for the deranged Renfield.

This film truly marks the start of the “monster genre” that dominated Hollywood and inspired viewers for another two decades, instigating other great monsters, such as Frankenstein, the Creature of the Black Lagoon, and the Wolf Man. I wanted to do a week of monster classics, featuring Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Wolf Man, but neither Frankenstein nor Wolf Man were available on Watch Instantly, and moreover, a Dracula week was just too tempting. But I digress. This film is on the list simply because of what it did for film, and for the horror genre. This film really popularized Vampires, and provided an archetype from which all other vampire films were based. It established a lot of vampire tropes. And seriously, when you think of Vampires, the first thought that pops into your head, I can guarantee you, is that of Bela Lugosi, the king of Vampires.